LONDON — There are international trade disputes about steel or telecommunications, but as the gathering debate about trade in genetically modified food makes clear, there is nothing quite as intense as an argument about food. Similarly, there are domestic political scandals about money or sex, but as the food contamination problems in Belgium, Britain, Hong Kong or Malaysia have shown, food can become high politics. Why is food so contentious?
The easiest answer is that food disputes seem to immediately stimulate a wider range of controversies. For example, in the case of GM food, it is evident that at the core of all the concern is a still underdeveloped debate about the genetic revolution. Scientists understand that we stand on the brink of a great revolution — the ability to remake major parts of the human body and the living world around us — but the general public is not ready for the leap into a complex field of choices that this revolution entails.
The argument that crops should not be genetically modified so we can use fewer pesticides should strike most people as perverse. But the media can keep a straight face when discussing the risks of “Frankenstein foods” because, deep down, people in democratic countries cannot decide how far and how fast the genetic revolution should be allowed to go.
The poverty of the GM food debate is in fact part of a wider problem in liberal democracies: the inability to judge scientific public policy. When confronted with conflicting scientific advice, as in most domestic food scandals, a public with a barely decent scientific education finds it hard to make the kinds of rational choices that are essential for the smooth functioning of democracies. Wild and shoddy research on the risks of GM food gets big headlines, but far less attention is given to the devastating refutation that follows months later. Jittery politicians respond to the immediate public hysteria by taking the easy course of postponing decisions and in effect closing down debate. Democracies are clearly not a congenial environment for serious scientific debate.
The politics of food are also hard to handle because they are at the cutting edge of so many new trends in domestic and international affairs. For one thing, they highlight the growing distrust of government. The fact that officials are slow to deal with food scares, or lack leadership in confronting new forms of food, is merely one more sign of the way power has been leaching away from government.
Power has gone in part to large corporations who are major players in the food industry and to vocal nongovernment organizations that often beat the politicians to the moral high ground. Research and development spending by governments in all major Western countries is below 40 percent of total spending and falling, as governments privatize companies and deregulate economies. It is becoming increasingly hard to ensure the accountability of companies in a global economy.
Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that in international terms power is also shifting. GM food has been grown for more than a decade in the United States, and major food-exporting countries such as Australia, Canada and Argentina have joined the U.S. in grabbing market share from Europeans — who have been much warier of GM foods and biotechnology as a whole. A new actor, China, is becoming very interested in the prospects of GM food, and one can expect little domestic opposition to its effort to expand its share of this huge market of the future.
But perhaps the most fascinating dimension of food politics is the way it connects with debates about identity in a more globalized world. At first glance, one might forgive countries with great cuisines — France, Italy, China — for mounting a conservative defense of food purity. Who would expect the Americans, Canadians or Australians, with their polyglot societies, to take food seriously?
Yet what is happening in the food and service industries in the developed world suggests that approaches to food are more complex than this. In all major cities, one sees wonderful new “fusion foods” as cultures interact and a more mobile population demands higher food standards and greater diversity. Some forms of these new mixes are distinctly odd — for example, McDonald’s sale of bastardized Indian food — but even these are responses to the new more sophisticated demands of consumers. Even in famously cuisine-impaired societies such as Britain, one can see the forces of globalization at work producing new diets and demands.
These forces of globalization not only lead to higher standards of taste, but also to higher standards of health. The Italians and the French have discovered that their much-loved traditional cheeses are sometimes dangerous to eat. German beer drinkers who run in fear of GM foods are now confronted with the risks of their traditional methods of brewing. The Japanese used to claim they could not import cheaper American rice because their stomachs were not suited to foreign rice. Everywhere, people have to make complex choices about their food priorities when in fact the choices they are making are in part about identity.
In this environment — where scientific debate is impoverished, governments are weakening, power is shifting and identities are under strain — it should be no surprise that debates about food are as strenuous, but also as incoherent, as they are. Blaming it all on globalization and large foreign companies with contaminated products (e.g. Coke) may make some people feel better, but until the population becomes scientifically literate and prepared to face the new century of biotechnology, we will be stuck with distastefully confused food policies.
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